No wilderness experience is complete without casting off that final thread of civilization: the swimsuit. Reminiscing on the times I’ve gone skinny dipping takes me back to the core of my wilderness trips, to the very reasons I went in the first place.
Floating naked in Indian Arm on a perfect summer night, surrounded by green phosphorescence, watching seals’ shimmering tracks like underwater comets. Or wind drying on Georgian Bay granite at sunrise, getting goose bumps on body parts rarely feeling the open air.
The skinny on swimwear
Blame modern civilization for the swimsuit—Victorian England outlawed naked swimming in 1860. In pre-industrial times everyone skinny dipped. Who would bother getting clothes wet? Especially before the days of fast-drying Lycra.
Early swimsuits favored prudishness over practicality. Made from hideous stiff canvas or flannel, they were cut for maximum concealment. Women’s bathing gowns had lead weights sewn into the hem to keep them from floating (the gowns, not the women, though one wonders how many drownings resulted). A wet swimsuit weighed 30 pounds.
Thankfully, by the 1930s, North America had begun turfing its beach censors, whose job it had been to enforce “neck to knees” coverage.
Skinny dipping flirts with the mainstream
Receding tan lines have since closely followed the flourishing of liberal democracy. Under Franco, Spain’s fascists shut down nude beaches. At the height of the fight against Hitler, people went bananas for the bikini in America. Scandinavia, that paragon of liberalism, is the world capital of nudism.
Naked swimming even transcends the culture wars: Democrat president Lyndon Johnson once skinny dipped with evangelist Billy Graham.
Swimming in the buff continues to gain popularity. In 1981 Pope John Paul II (who was a kayaker first) issued a statement about morality and nakedness that effectively gave it the okay. The 2009 television series The Skinny Dip featured young, hot Newfoundlander Eve Kelly getting naked at a remote swimming hole in every episode. And at the end of 2012, a herd of New Zealanders stripped and dipped to break the group skinny dipping record of 413.
Yet fully freeing ourselves from the convention to cover up still requires escape. That’s why every nude beach is a mini wilderness: Vancouver’s legendary Wreck Beach, 473 steps down to the sea at the outer edge of an urban forest. Toronto’s Hanlan’s Point, which only became legal in 1999, separated from downtown by an island. Or San Diego’s Black’s Beach, a hike below 300-foot cliffs.
A feeling of liberation
Myself, I prefer to kayak to more private skinny dipping spots. I hadn’t considered myself a nudist—that political “ism” associated with the brazenly unclothed—until I learned how much the term’s definition sounds like why I paddle: “becoming one with the natural world” and “a feeling of liberation as you shed your status, pretensions and fears.”
For me, the freedom to skinny dip is not just a sign I’ve gotten away. It’s the final ritual of getting there, a baptism.
Feeling cheeky. | Feature Photo: Virginia Marshall